Opening Remarks to the Formal Consultations for the Global Compact on Refugees


Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you for joining us here today as we move into the next phase of the development of the global compact on refugees. This is a momentous occasion. We have a unique opportunity before us now to craft a compact that allows us to come together and unite around the imperative of making a difference for refugees and those who host them.

Before introducing the zero draft, let me recall the broader context against which today’s and tomorrow’s discussions are taking place. You are, of course, intimately familiar with the context, but as we go into these discussions, it is important not to lose sight of what is at stake here. The last couple of years have seen an increase in the magnitude, scale, and complexity of refugee and forced displacement issues. There are over 22.5 million refugees in the world today. Let us also not forget there are additionally some 43.1 million internally displaced persons and an estimated 10 million stateless people. Refugees flee because of persecution, conflict, violence, and serious human rights violations. Increasingly, we also witness the adverse impact of environmental degradation and climate change and how this interacts with conflict. The fate of refugees is a sad reflection of a world in turmoil, and they require protection, assistance, and solutions to their plight.

Equally, countries that host refugees need active and sustained support on a number of fronts. The reality is that the countries that have the fewest resources are amongst the greatest affected. Eighty-four per cent of the world’s refugees are in the global south, living often in the most impoverished parts of the world. Also, the vast majority of refugees have been displaced for extended periods of time, sometimes for decades, and solutions to their predicament have been increasingly difficult to achieve in the last couple of years.

Ensuring protection, assistance, and solutions – particularly in large-scale refugee situations – requires broad, sustained, and predictable international cooperation. The UN General Assembly made it clear in one of its first resolutions in 1946 that refugee issues are, by their very nature, a matter of international concern, which necessitates international cooperation and expects that everyone contributes within their capacities. It has to be said that, historically, the international refugee regime has relied on the support of a relatively small number of countries. In the face of growing needs today, widening the support base is absolutely crucial.

Since 1950, when UNHCR was created as the global refugee institution and the 1951 Convention was born, we have seen the development of solid international, regional, and national legal frameworks. This has generated a myriad of good policies and practices, as well as robust operational engagement on behalf of persons in need of international protection. The latest expression of this body of standards and practices at the intergovernmental level can be found in the New York Leaders’ Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, in which the General Assembly tasked the High Commissioner to propose, in 2018, a global compact on refugees.

This global compact is to be developed in light of both the experience gathered through the application of the comprehensive refugee response framework [‘CRRF’, contained in Annex I of the New York Declaration], and consultations with Member States and other stakeholders. Hence, in 2017, UNHCR rolled out, within a relatively short period of time, the CRRF in a number of countries and regions, and also looked at other responses to large-scale situations to learn from them. We further organized five informal thematic consultations, and at the end of last year undertook a stocktaking exercise during the High Commissioner’s Dialogue. This experience and lessons learned have informed the development of the zero draft of the global compact.

Today marks the first day of the formal process leading to the global compact on refugees. This process is the final phase of the development of the global compact. At the same time, we hope that today will also be the beginning of an important conversation as to how the international community will engage on refugee issues and with host countries in the future. It has the potential to transform the way we work together, and in doing so, to shape the course of history. It brings with it a certain gravitas that imbues all of us gathered here today [and working together over the next few months on its elaboration], with a particular sense of responsibility.

The basis of our discussion today and tomorrow is the zero draft of the global compact on refugees, which the High Commissioner released on the 31st of January this year. The zero draft includes, first, the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework already adopted in Annex One of the New York Declaration, and, second, a Programme of Action setting out support measures for countries hosting large populations of refugees.

Given that we have in place a strong international refugee protection regime with well-established principles, the global compact is not meant to be, and does not need to be, the ‘be all and end all’ of 70 years of law and practice or a standard-setting exercise. Also, it is not intended to provide a 360-degree view of all aspects of refugee situations. Rather, already firmly grounded in and building on the international refugee protection regime, it seeks to respond to a specific gap, first identified in the Preamble of the 1951 Convention and painstakingly responded to over the years: which is, how to define and ensure better international cooperation and responsibility sharing in the context of mass influx or protracted refugee situations.

Against this background, the global compact on refugees therefore embodies a new approach:

First, it seeks to engage a wider range of States and other actors to respond effectively to large movements of refugees, both new and protracted.

Second, it seeks to provide greater support – of a humanitarian and development nature – to hosting countries to enable them to include refugees in their national systems for health, education, and other basic services, benefiting refugees and their host communities alike.

Third, it seeks to place greater focus on the self-reliance of refugees so that they are less dependent on aid, are better equipped to return home when conditions allow, and, in the meantime, can contribute to the communities who are hosting them.

Finally, it seeks to invigorate the search for solutions, encompassing voluntary repatriation, resettlement, complementary pathways for admission, and other local solutions.

As you can see, the Programme of Action proposed in the zero draft is intended to underpin, concretize, and operationalize the comprehensive refugee response framework. We believe it represents a carefully designed balance, broadly acceptable, with proposals that serve as the basis for effective and sustainable approaches to assisting refugees and the countries that host them. It sets out the kinds of support that host countries would be able to rely upon when faced with a large influx of refugees or a protracted refugee situation. It envisions partnerships with a broad spectrum of actors who can leverage financial resources, political support, and technical expertise across the spectrum of displacement – ranging from initial reception, to inclusion in national systems and services, to durable solutions. And it ensures that such measures would be rights-based and integrate gender, age, and diversity dimensions throughout. 

While the global compact on refugees is legally non-binding and is not a treaty or convention, it is nonetheless an important demonstration of the will of the international community. It is signal of the international community’s intention to give substance to the concept of responsibility sharing. The global compact is a blueprint for how the international community can engage more robustly with countries hosting large populations of refugees, including for extended periods of time. It can provide a toolbox of broad measures that we can employ in forging a refugee response, so that we do not reinvent the wheel each time. When faced with large-scale refugee situations, States and other actors can then use, adapt, and further define these tools, as needed, to develop responses that are tailored to their specific contexts. If acted upon, these tools will broaden the base of support and make it more predictable and sustained.

If we truly manage to achieve what is already set out in this zero draft, it would advance responsibility sharing well beyond what exists today, and this in itself would represent an enormous leap forward. This compact will be for this generation, but also future ones. Together, we can lay the foundation for refugees to have better access to schools, medical attention, livelihoods, and futures. This will be done in a way that also benefits those who host them by building better national services and providing stronger support to ease the pressure and mitigate the impact of forced displacement. In so doing, it will leave a long-term, positive legacy.

Based on a solid understanding amongst States that greater, faster international cooperation is required, the zero draft is specific and practical. It sets out measures and mechanisms that can be nimble and responsive, and that can be adapted to different situations. It tries, therefore, to avoid proposing processes that risk becoming an end in themselves. The draft Programme of Action, including its section on ‘follow-up’, aims to strike a balance to ensure this.

Finally, I would like to address some practical questions relating to the formal consultations. This session will focus on general comments on the entire text. Based on your comments, we will then prepare a revised draft and share a first draft of the global compact ahead of the March and April meetings. These meetings will entail a more detailed section-by-section review. Written comments provided before, during, and after the consultations are welcome, and if you agree, they will be posted online for reasons of transparency.

At the end, I would like to appeal to you that we adopt a spirit of collective ownership, constructive engagement, and genuine listening. We need to keep in mind that this is fundamentally a humanitarian issue that must not be politicized. At the end of the day, if we succeed in finding common ground, we will have advanced the agenda, broadened the base, and made a difference in the lives of people – both refugees and their hosts. This humanitarian spirit and deep sense of responsibility must guide us as we work on this together in the months to come.

Thank you.